Later this morning we fly from Madrid to Greece, so we wanted to share a few last thoughts about Spain and Spanish culture.


We had read that many countries virtually shut down in the summer as everyone closes shop and heads for cooler climes, but this is the first time we’ve actually experienced it. A few shops began to close in July, but on the first of August, the exodus began in earnest. Now, it’s not uncommon to walk down a street and see three or four shops in a row with signs in their windows saying they are closed for the month.

The Spanish are used to things closing down at inconvenient times, though. Many stores shut down for siesta from about 2 until 5 or 5:30, and then stay open until 8 or 9. Amy and I never quite adjusted to this schedule and would regularly find ourselves ready to run an errand at 2:30 only to realize nothing would be open.

Even the trash shuts down here. Our high-rise apartment building has a small courtyard in the middle of it where the trash bins are kept. The courtyard is locked every afternoon, reopens for a bit in the evening, and then closes again at night. It’s also locked on weekends, and tenants don’t have a key to get in. The first weekend we were here we realized this too late, and had a stinky bag of trash to throw away on Saturday morning. We tied it up tight and put in on the balcony.

Spanish Food

Amy’s tutor, Jesús, is a bit of a foodie, but he told her he prefers Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and other foreign foods to Spanish food, which is very simple and basic. He’s got a point. Spanish food is, for the most part, the same from restaurant to restaurant. You can get a few varieties of bocadillos (sandwiches) but they often consist of just slices of sausage or cured ham on a roll. There are tapas (basically appetizers) but most places seem to serve the same varieties as every other place. You can find paella, but it’s more of a regional dish from Valencia.

Spanish food isn’t very spicy, either. Any thoughts you may have that Spanish food is like Mexican food should be banished. People cook with what they have, and there must be a lot more hot spices in Mexico than in Spain.

Hanging Out

In much of America, most socializing happens at home, whether at a dinner, a party, a barbecue, or simply a night in to watch movies or play games. In Ireland, most socializing happens in pubs, where there might be live music or a rugby match on TV, but it’s not really necessary to have an excuse to go to your local and have a drink. In Spain, socializing happens outside.

It’s not unusual to stroll the streets at 11 p.m. and pass groups of octogenarians sitting on benches, chatting away. Walk by any park any evening and it will be packed with people of all ages talking with friends and neighbours. Stop at a plaza (which you’ll find every few blocks), and not only will there be dozens of people sitting on benches, but many others leaning out over the balconies of the high rise apartment buildings overlooking the plaza.

The weather being so warm (often hot) in Spain is undoubtedly one reason for this outdoor culture. Try sitting on a park bench in Cork and you’ll get your butt wet most days, but lounging in a park in the evening breeze is a pleasant way to pass the evening in Madrid. Also, in a big city like Madrid, there are no yards, so getting outside means being in a public place.


For many years, I thought the only significant difference between Spain Spanish and Latin American Spanish was the Spaniards’ preference for the vosotros conjugation of verbs.  In actual fact, there are not only several different Spanish accents (think Irish vs. British vs. American), there are also different languages spoken here, such as Basque and Catalan.

A friend of ours from Valladolid, the birthplace of Castilian Spanish, gave us our first lesson in the Spanish language when she pointed out that people from the Andalucía region have a very different accent from the rest of the country.  This was confirmed during a conversation with a man from Jerez earlier this summer.  He said that the Andalucían accent sounds more like what you would hear in Latin America.  As a matter of fact, most of the Spanish conquistadors came from Andalucía so it really makes sense that Latin American Spanish sounds more Andalucían than Castilian.

In addition to different accents and languages, there are many colloquialisms and slang words that are specific to the different regions of the country.  Misunderstandings can and do occur on many levels.

During our daily pop purchases, as we walked out of the small shops around Madrid we would often hear the shop keepers say, “Salo”.  Neither of us had heard this Spanish word before, but made the assumption that it must be a Spanish colloquialism for “Good-bye” or “See you later”. Naturally, we responded in kind.

We both tried googling our new found Spanish term, but the only match we could find was a small coastal Spanish village called Salou near Tarragona.  We had no luck when we tried various spellings on a Spanish to English dictionary website either.

Fortunately, we have a Spanish connection:  my teacher, Jesús.  When I asked him about the word and what it meant he seemed confused at first.  Then, with a smile, he explained that they were saying, “Hasta luego”, but because the Spaniards talk so quickly, to our untrained ears it sounded like, “Salo”.

Pat and I have both tried to speed up our “Hasta luego”, but it never sounds like “Salo” no matter how fast we try to speak.  When I hear it from a local though, it still sounds like “Salo” to me.

I was buzzed in to Jesús’ apartment at 12:00 on the nose for my weekly Spanish lesson.  He greeted my arrival with, “¿Que tal?  Estas muy punctual.”  To which I simply replied, “Soy Americana”.

It’s true that many Americans place a lot of value on promptness.  I had left our apartment 20 minutes before 12:00 knowing full well that it was no more than a 10 minute walk to Jesús’ place.  But with the narrow streets and my poor map reading skills I wanted to give myself plenty of time for a prompt arrival.

Jesús chatted with me about his perceptions of the American vs. Spanish sense of time.  If an American is chatting with someone and realizes that he needs to be somewhere at a certain time he will point to his watch with a quick explanation of his upcoming destination, wrap up the conversation abruptly and depart post haste.  If the same scenario happens with a Spaniard, the priority is with the current conversation.  The appointment is less important than the social interaction in progress.  Being ten minutes late for an appointment is not really perceived as “late” by a Spaniard.

I am pretty sure Jesús feels that the Spanish approach to time, with its priority focused on social interaction has many more merits than the American way, and I can certainly see his point.  Sadly, I am pretty sure that I cannot undo 37 years of hard-wired American punctuality.

Antequerra, Spain

Originally uploaded by Pat and Amy’s pics

Driving in the cities had become such a frustration in Spain that we seemed to have only two choices. We could abandon our original plans to see Córdoba and Sevilla and instead visit smaller towns or we could abandon the car in the parking garage, fake our own deaths to avoid payment on the rental, and take a ferry to Morocco. I was all for the second idea but Amy convinced me to try the first so we cancelled our room in Córdoba and instead spent several days in Antequera, a town of about 40,000 people.

I think most visitors would have gotten bored with Antequera pretty quickly, but we really enjoyed our time there. The best part was that we finally had an opportunity to try out our Spanish “skills.” In Barcelona in particular most of the people we came into contact with spoke English, but once we got into Antequera, our Spanish was often better than the locals’ English. One day I dropped off some laundry and had to use my Spanish to establish that we wanted the clothes washed but not ironed, that it would be ready by 12 but not 11, and that we didn’t live in Antequera. I admit that some of this communication was helped along by a little charades. She mimed ironing, while I mimed being trapped in an invisible box.

We spent our last couple of nights in Ojén, a wonderful little white village just north of Marbella. Within hours we weren’t just planning on visiting again but deciding exactly when we could move there, since we had originally planned to live in Spain for three months before moving to Ireland and a two-week working (for me) holiday just wasn‘t long enough. The food in Antequera had been something of a disappointment (except for the roasted chestnuts, a first for me, and oddly addicting), but although Ojén was much smaller, the food was much better. Twice we had pollo asado, or roast chicken, and I could have eaten it breakfast, lunch and dinner.

During the course of our trip, I drank red wine and ate rabbit, duck, mussels, and olives (none of this will seem that surprising to those of you who don’t know me well, but my siblings once offered to pay me a dollar to eat an olive. I did, and they never paid, the lying ) There were times I almost felt like a grown-up.

Two literary notes: We visited Ronda, the town which inspired Hemingway’s execution scene describing people being thrown off a bridge in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The bridge is quite impressive, and while I doubt any executions have taken place there recently, two people have died recently in what are believed to be unrelated suicides.

It was also reported while we were in Spain that the body of the poet Federico García Lorca has probably been discovered. He was murdered during the Spanish Civil War, and his body had never been found, but now it is believed to be in a mass grave under a tree near Granada. The last we heard, there was a legal battle surrounding the decision to dig up the bodies but it will probably happen soon.

Spanish Civil War atrocities aside, I’m not surprised we loved Spain so much. Any country that schedules a two hour nap into their workday is okay in my book.

We were riding the bus from the airport in Barcelona to our room in the city, when we both realized everything felt familiar.  It wasn´t like London, where the city seemed so recognizable from countless movies and television shows, but something different.  It took a few moments before we knew what it was.  We were riding on the right side of the road, the green road signs looked like those in the states, and I was most reminded of the first time I was driven on the freeways from the San Antonio, Texas, airport. 


The familiarity with the roads, though, would not last.  We had decided to rent a car this trip which we would pick up at the end of our four days in Barcelona and use to drive to Andalucia in the south.  We could stop where and when we wanted, and getting out to the national parks would be easier with a car than if we used public transportation. 


This falls into the “seemed like a good idea at the time”category.  We have a lot of those.  Several times on each trip we have taken, one of us turns to the other and declares, “Lesson learned,” and explains what we´ve done wrong or what we´ll be doing differently on our next trip.  Usually our first lesson pops up within minutes of our arrival in a new country.  You´d think with enough of these trips, we´d be making fewer mistakes, but while we really do learn our lessons and rarely repeat a mistake, we are talented enough to discover new ways to mess up.


We actually realized the car was a mistake even before we picked it up, when the owner of our hostal (which is different from a hostel) told us about the toll roads, which no research we´d done on Spain had turned up.  It seems that tolls are collected on most of the roads here, and they charge one euro per ten kilometers, which was quite a lot since we were driving over one thousand kilometers just to get to Andalucia, and more kilometers when we got there.  It turned out that only a fraction of the roads we used had tolls, so it wasn´t quite that bad.


Navigating and driving out of Barcelona was the first challenge.  I´ve driven a little in Ireland where they have lots of roundabouts, but at least there they have lanes.  Here, at the first roundabout I came to, all the cars seemed to shift one lane (there were three) to the right as they entered the roundabout, at which point all the lines disappeared and drivers pretty much went where they wanted.  It was madness, and both Amy and I discovered we really can curse quite effectively when the need arrives.  At least this roundabout had some helpful signage.  Leaving Almeria we found one where the signs before the roundabout listed the many destinations reachable through this roundabout, but once in it, not a single exit had a sign saying where it led. 


Driving on the autovia (freeway) is really not that different from driving in America, except for the larger number of drivers who don´t realize there is a striped line down the center of the road separating the two travel lanes, which, along with the speeding of many drivers, explains why Spain has the highest fatal auto accident rate in Europe.  It´s in the cities, though, where the driving turns to hell.  For example, it took more than 90 minutes after arriving in Granada to reach our hostal.  We had printed a map with just enough detail to show us an easy way to the hostal, with only three turns.  Of course it didn´t work, because before we arrived at our second turn the street was restricted to buses and taxis, forcing us to turn down a side-street and begin our forty minutes of wandering.  We knew from driving in Almeria that there apparently had been a law passed that whatever road we were driving on would not have visible street names, and any street where the name was visible would not be on our map.  This proved true in Granada as well, and only by a little luck did we arrive safely at our hostal. 


The worse part for me is that I was named as the driver for the entire trip.  Amy´s driving test in Ireland was rescheduled until after our trip, and we didn´t want her to relearn to drive on the right side of the road here in Spain and then make a mistake on the test.  To further ensure she wouldn´t be contaminated by this trip to the continent, the entire drive she had to close her eyes, cover her ears, and go, ¨Blah, blah, blah, blah.¨